The Nones Bible
“Some confusion about where believers go when they die”
I don’t make it a habit of reading obituaries. Like the old joke, I’m afraid I might come across my own death notice. But I do read articles about people who have died and find it curious when people of faith speak of where their loved one has gone and what they’re doing in the afterlife.
It’s important to be careful when considering these delicate emotional times and the deep feelings of grief people are experiencing when they express their beliefs.
With that sensitivity in mind, I was reading the words of one person who recently lost his father. He said, “My father has joined my mother in heaven. He went to sleep in his home … and woke up in the arms of Jesus. While many around the world mourn his physical death, he is now celebrating the eternal life [he told others about].”
These words were spoken by someone who says they know the Bible very well. In fact, they “believe in the Bible.” The Bible is the Word of God, infallible, to this family. We can respect that. We can also expect they would be consistent about what they believe, especially when it concerns serious issues such as death.
As I read the words of that grieving son, I remembered my own years studying scriptures. Recalling a passage we used to read in our evangelical group, I was puzzled. The words and the images the son spoke didn’t seem to fit with a passage from Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians, chapter four. The apostle writes about believers who have died, “so that you may not grieve.”
“We who are left until the coming of the Lord (Paul believed he would see Jesus return) will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.”
That’s a lot to unpack. Yet, those who “believe the Bible” would have to handle some difficult questions.
How could Paul, the inspired writer of scripture, have been so wrong about being alive for the return of Christ? Was it fair to teach that to early believers? If “the dead rise first,” then aren’t they in the ground until that day? So, no one is “with God” or “in the arms of Jesus” until then, right? If living believers fly up into the clouds with the dead how does Jesus “catch them” and where do they go?
It may sound sarcastic but we also have to ask: Does God really play a trumpet?
The mourning son wrote, “Today, [my father] is experiencing what he devoted a lifetime to telling others they could experience if they placed their trust in Jesus Christ.”
Today? A believer goes directly into heaven and the embrace of God? This is odd. I thought we were taught since childhood that people “sleep” until the Day of Resurrection when the dead shall be raised.
Yet, this man’s departed father once said, “Do I fear death? No. I look forward to death, with great anticipation. I am looking forward to seeing God face to face. And that could happen any day.” Clearly he believed the moment he died he would see God. But what about Paul and his letter of encouragement to the believers in Thessalonica?
Why do we seem to get so confused about death? Maybe because it’s Death, and death is a mystery that we desperately want to understand, to explain, to be comforted over.
Paul wanted to assure the early believers in the crucified rabbi of Nazareth that they would soon hear trumpets, see their dead friends and family rise from their graves, and fly up with them into the sky where Jesus swoops down to pick them up to soar beyond the clouds. It’s very dramatic and leaves our thoughts floating in air.
I have grieved many times, and sat with people who are grieving. I learned to minimize words. Nothing to explain. Being with another in their sorrow is enough.
Assuring someone their loved one is in the Lord’s arms, face to face with God, may sound like encouragement. I understand the powerful emotions that image provides. Though I don’t see how that’s better than being present, and silent.
No one knows if and when the dead will rise, but Death raises some trumpeting questions, does it not?
Note: I’ve been reading Anthony Pinn’s book, Writing God’s Obituary. An interesting story of his emergence from Methodist ministry to Humanist teaching at Rice University.